Law in Contemporary Society

An anecdotal theory of interpersonal behavior

-- By MattBurke - 18 May 2015

Anecdote 1: A speech

When I was nine, my parents separated. After, I had trouble in school, frequent fights, diminished quality of work, that sort of thing. My mother took me to a therapist. At our first meeting, the therapist told me a story: A man came to her office with a boa constrictor around his neck. Whenever the therapist tried to engage the man, he would ask her to pet the snake. So, the therapist told the man to put the snake down, or she would not help him.

Of her story, I understood that because snakes were scary, she was brave. Bravery was good, I thought. But I didn’t understand who needed to be brave, the therapist, myself, or someone else. And so I concluded that I had missed the point. It is a feeling, that of missing the point, I frequently felt as a child, and one I often still feel.

I continued not knowing her point for nearly fifteen years. It was my first year as a high school teacher. I was in the office during a free period—I might as well claim to have been making copies or grading, but likely I was just hanging out. The office had air conditioning.

A student entered. He’d just misbehaved—sworn at his geometry teacher. The principal was in a meeting, so the secretary instructed the student to wait. After a while, a senior teacher, who I’ll call Peterson, passed through the office. Peterson was something of a mentor to me then, and I watched to see if and how he would engage the student.

I watched Peterson’s posture and expression as he deduced the student’s transgression from the student’s posture and expression. “Get into a fight with a teacher?” Peterson asked. The student nodded. Then the student explained: The teacher had mistakenly accused the student of another student’s misdeeds. Insulted, the student "cursed out" the geometry teacher.

Peterson nodded and unfurled to the student a speech. His speech is a familiar one to high school students and teachers—the one about treating an authority figure with respect even when the authority figure errs. The speech was right. The student understood it, so did I. But the student also held his justification close, the geometry teacher was wrong, the student was right, and no speech could change that.

After Peterson left, I asked the student what he thought of his geometry teacher, the one at whom he’d cursed. He told me. I nodded and listened, but I didn’t reply.

Anecdote 2: A question

In my second year, a student I’ll call Jon appeared in my class. It was the middle of the period. He was a transfer. He introduced himself by shouting a profanity. Then he found his seat.

I held him after class and gave a speech. But my speech meant the same thing to him as his profanity had to me, an announcement: This is who I am. After my speech, we talked.

We talked frequently. Often removed from class, I’d find him pacing the hallway and walk with him up past classroom doors. I’d find him in the office and hand him a stack of papers and a red pen. He’d grade some. I’d grade others. He told me about his family, his brothers in jail, and his father in Nevada. He talked about Nevada—his house had a backyard, he had his own room. We’d play cards.

Eventually they suspended Jon for stealing a teacher’s purse. He didn’t do it. He was with another student who did, but the other student pinned it on Jon, and Jon took the fall. In New York City, students serve suspensions for severe infractions in off-site centers. Jon stayed in a center for the remainder of the year. Infractions while there lengthened his term.

When Jon appeared in my class again, mid-October of the following year, he found his seat without a word. He seemed older. He raised his hand and answered correctly. After class, he stayed behind. I told him I was glad to see him. He was glad to be back. I asked him about his suspension. He didn’t reply.

He asked me if believed in heaven. I said: “Why?” He said: “I don’t.” I didn’t reply.

Then he asked me: “Is it okay to join a gang?” I said, "no," but my answer missed the point.

Exegesis: Wrong ideas

The realization upon which I premised the first anecdote is one I had while writing it, not while experiencing it. For this reason, the anecdote ends in silence. I wasn't then, nor am I now, sure that anything productive could be said. The second anecdote might as well have ended in silence: I recently spent some time volunteering at the high school and neither students nor faculty had heard from Jon. The notion that either anecdote could end with the saying of some productive truth is, I think, a wrong idea.

Someday, I’d like to write a book of wrong ideas. My thesis: Wrong ideas struggle to formulate a truth until the truth becomes incompatible with the idea that formulates it. The formula, though essential, is essentially incidental. The struggle to formulate produces the greater insight. But that book is a long game. I mention it here to help introduce a wrong idea about interpersonal behavior, something lying in the interstices of my two anecdotes: We desire others to accept for us that which we struggle to accept for ourselves.

If my wrong idea carries any weight, the "no" I said to Jon was a truth I wanted him to accept, just as was my therapist's speech to me and Peterson's to the student, as was my silence concluding the first anecdote. But each touches the wrongness of the idea—its futility. Each one had some truth, and the other could accept it or reject it for the sake of the one, but still the one struggled.

It is possible that another wrong idea is also present. I think the therapist made a mistake: she was so busy trying to make sure you had a relationship with her that she forgot to have a relationship with you. Under your circumstances, at that time, this was normal. You missed the point the way you missed parents who knew how to live with one another and with you. Peterson made a mistake because he could read minds well enough to know when giving a speech wouldn't be productive. He was wisely chosen as a mentor, but all of us are creatures of habit. You made a mistake with Jon because you knew that was a question about how to find love, to which silence is always a possible response, but also a form of unintended rejection. We can't always love back, of course, even to make it unnecessary for a loveless young person to join a gang. Or perhaps especially. But on the other hand there weren't many people who were allowed to know that he sought love, and silence prevented him from being confirmed in his belief that another human being he trusted does too.

I don't think you're wrong, exactly, or even wrong. Moreover, I think you're right: there is a psychic division of labor in relationships, which you and I are not the first and second people to notice. We are indeed called upon to hold, lose, accept, reject etc. those aspects of others they struggle to accept, lose, hold, reject etc. for themselves. Once we have seen this about people, and learned about ourselves the strength of our powers in doing so, we face a decision about what to do with ourselves. Playing a long game is only one choice.

I really enjoyed this piece. It forced me to challenge/evaluate my own preconceived notions. I have always felt a pushing and a pulling to the idea that "we desire others to accept for us that which we struggle to accept about ourselves." I wouldn't necessarily say that, in particular, is my “wrong idea”, but it is yours. What I took out of this piece is that I as well have one.

The issues I had most with this paper was the flow of it. I read it more as much of a paper of self-discovery and self-evaluation than about you learning that social problems start with people. They work hand in hand and I like how they compliment each other, but it seems very disjointed. The Conclusion comes a bit out of left field. The Intro discusses this idea of wrong ideas so deeply ingrained that they become reality, but as a whole this paper feels a bit unframed. I see how this notion of “wrong ideas” relates to many societal problems, but that doesn’t feel like the thesis of this paper or exactly where you are trying to go to me.

The paper to me read like the acceptance of change and how the only way to do that is through self-evaluation. I have always tried to accept who I am, as I thought others would see me as different. That turned into a need to be different, in order for others to see only the differences I wanted them to see. At times in my life, many times, I ran from away from myself, sometimes it meant acting out to fit in and other times trying my best to stay unnoticed. With the physical limitations I have, games like soccer and volleyball were an intimidating part of my life as an elementary school kid. Later on, in high school, I spent plenty of time as the obnoxious young student seeking attention. I yearned the approval of those around me; familial and societal approval. Why am I in law school? Is it to impress my grandfather, the patriarch of my family, or is it to challenge myself because other financial aspects of my life that will not be as challenged? Is it to have the preconceived sense of authority as a Columbia Law Grad? The two anecdotes and their “characters” each placed me at different stages in my life and had me question whether my ideas in those instances were right, wrong or so engrained that "the truth became incompatible with the idea that formulates it". I see it is much better to either be right or wrong than option #3. I sought approval, but on my terms; something I still do. It must first break to ever see it needed fixing. (If it ain't broken, maybe we need to break it.)

-- LeoFarbman - 19 May 2015



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r12 - 29 Jun 2015 - 21:50:20 - MarkDrake
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